Mental Health Tips: Steps to Forgiveness

By Kendra Penski on September 15, 2022 in Blog, Therapy

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Two women sitting at a table having a conversation.

What is forgiveness? Why do we need to forgive people who don’t deserve to be forgiven? Forgiveness is one of the hardest things to do and it looks different for everyone. Forgiveness doesn’t mean it is a reconciliation or repairing or returning to a relationship, it isn’t forgetting the injustice, or condoning or excusing the offender’s behavior. Nor is it granting legal mercy to the offender or “letting go”, but continuing to wish revenge on that person. Okay, so you must be asking yourself then, “Okay, what does forgiveness look like then?” Forgiveness is the decision to overcome the pain that was inflicted by another person. It is treating the offender/wrongdoer with compassion, even though they are not entitled or “deserve” it. It involves letting go of anger, resentment, shame, and other emotions associated with injustice, even though they are reasonable feelings to have. 

Understanding Forgiveness

When we can deepen our understanding of forgiveness, we can learn to understand what the word “forgiveness” means. As a young child, I am sure most of us heard that term a lot and all throughout our adulthood, “You need to forgive them”, and it can put a bitter taste in our mouths. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or condoning the wrongdoing or reconciling a relationship. You certainly can forgive a person while in no way believing that their actions were acceptable or justified. However, if we just say “I forgive you” or accepting an apology does not make it forgiveness. Forgiveness is an emotional change that occurs within the person (you) who has been wronged, this can happen without ever speaking to the wrongdoer. There are four phases of forgiveness. Try some of the exercises below to see if it can help you possibly forgive someone you have been thinking of throughout this blog.

Steps to Forgiveness

  1. The Uncovering Phase. During the first phase of forgiveness, you learn to improve your understanding of the injustice and how it has impacted your life. This can be done by describing the events/injustices you have endured. Why was this treatment unfair? What happened? How have the injustices affected you? Try to think of emotions, changed behaviors, practical costs, physical harm, etc.
  2. The Decision Phase. This second phase will help you gain a deeper understanding of what forgiveness is and how to make the decision to choose or reject forgiveness as an option. Try this technique: Without looking at the definition above, how would you describe forgiveness? With that, write a list of the pros and cons of deciding to forgive the person who wronged you? How might things be different if you decided to forgive?
  3. The Work Phase. During the third phase, you will start to understand the offender in a new way, which will help allow you to feel more positive feelings towards the offender and yourself. Learning to understand the offender, and to see them as more than their wrongdoing, is an important part of forgiveness. What was life like for the offender as they grew up? May this have impacted their behavior? List the feelings that you currently have towards the offender and notice if there are any positive feelings in your list towards them. If not, have your negative feelings changed over time? Have they lessened? 
  4. The Deepening Phase. During the last phase of forgiveness, you will further decrease the negative emotions associated with the injustice. You can find new meaning in the experiences and recognize ways in which you have grown as a result. Have you benefited by forgiving the offender? Consider how forgiveness has affected your emotional health and/or behavioral changes. Write down how you have grown because of the injustice that you endured and your efforts to forgive. What else has changed since you forgave them? Are you stronger than you were before?

Forgiveness is the process where someone (you) who has been wronged by someone else, chooses to let go of their resentment, and treat the person who wronged you with compassion. It is not an easy task by any means, but with a little guidance and support from our family and loved ones, we can one day choose to forgive those who have wronged us and notice that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. 

By: MacKenzie Greenlee, LMFT